Scottish Castles Association

Preserving the Past for the Future

Castle Warfare Part IV: The English attack on Edinburgh 1544

nether bow small
Nether Bow's marker

On the 15th December 1543 the Scottish parliament broke the marriage treaty between the infant Mary Queen of Scots and Prince Edward of England and renewed the alliance with France - Henry VIII lost his cool

He declared himself 'King of Scotland' and the Scots 'rebels' and issued the following grim order to his military commander, Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford:

"Put all to fire and sword, burn Edinburgh town, so razed and defaced when you have sacked and gotten what ye can of it as there may remain forever a perpetual memory of the vengeance of God for their falsehood and disloyalty."

Hertford was to prove a good servant.

On the 3rd of May 1544 an English fleet appeared off Leith with 10,000 men. The port was soon captured and Hertford marched to Edinburgh and announced that unless the infant Mary was delivered to him he would attack. He was refused.

Hertford's letter (edited) to Henry VIII from 'Leith, 9 May 1544' told him what he yearned to know:

"I marched through the suburbs to the principal port of the town, The Netherbow, being an iron gate and well fortified with men and ordinance from which they shot so fast that some of our men being killed in the streets with the same, the rest began to shrink and retire, but that the gentlemen gave the onset and made so sharp an assault on the gate that they captured a piece of their artillery and by violence drew it from them through a loop hole.

Nevertheless the Scots did shoot out of their windows of their houses so fast with hand guns that our men, being so astonished therewith, shot at adventure and did more hurt to their own fellows than to the enemy's whereby it chanced that my Lord William was hit by an arrow above the cheek".

The gate flew open and our men entered the town with such good courage as all the enemies fled away and many of them were slain

The Lord Admiral caused to lay ordinance to the said gate, after three or four shots of a culverin, the gate flew open and our men entered the town with such good courage as all the enemies fled away and many of them were slain, we think about six or seven score at the least. And being thus entered, our enemies discomfited. I ordered that we should proceed no further, yet, when the said gate was thus won, the gunners - of their own courage and without advice or commandment - made forthwith an approach with their battery pieces to the Castle of Edinburgh and fired upon it; but the castle being so strong and the approach so dangerous on all sides that it is not possible for men to stand to their pieces without utter destruction. The Scots with their shot both of cannon and other pieces out of the castle, slew our men and dismounted one of our guns. The castle seemed to be impregnable whereupon I ordered a retreat with all the cannon saving that which was dismounted.

I caused the town to be fired whereupon the soldiers fell into a panic by reason of the shot out of the castle which killed sundry of them and with cryings out they began to flee so fast out of the town that, by reason of the straight passage at the gate, the throng and press was such that one of them was like to destroy the other. But God be thanked at last it was well appeased with much ado and having made a jolly fire and smoke upon the town I, with Your Highness' army, returned to our camp in this town.

So that we trust Your Majesty's commission given to me, for the burning of the said town is now well executed, for the town and also the Abbey of Holyrood House is in manner wholly burnt and desolate, which considering the dangerous entry into the same town by reason of the shot of the castle, we found to be a far more difficult and dangerous enterprise than before has been supposed.

And while the town was burning and we standing upon the hill without the town to view the same we might well hear the women and poor miserable creatures of the town make exclamation and cryings.

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Edinburgh as seen by Hertford in 1544 with The Netherbow and St Giles

And also your horsemen since their arrival here have ridden abroad in the country and burnt round about within five miles compass hereabouts and have gotten good booties both of cattle and also ready money and plate to a good value and substance.

And, finally, having made such devastation of the country hereabouts as Your Majesty has commanded, I shall then proceed to the execution of the rest of my charge in our return home by land which I trust shall be accomplished to Your Highness' honour and contentment. Thus, Almighty God, preserve Your Majesty in your royal estate most felicitously to endure".

Hertford was as good as his word and left a trail of destruction as his army returned to England overland.

This was the start of the long war known as The Rough Wooing. Within two years Henry was dead and Hertford appointed Regent. With this came new titles 'Lord Protector' and 'Duke of Somerset'. He was to use these powers to the full and it was not long before the 'wooing' was resumed which would have brought Scotland to her knees but for the eleventh hour intervention of the French.

The Netherbow Port

The gate attacked by Hertford was the principal port in the walls and dated from the 15th century. It was situated on what is now the Royal Mile half way between the Palace of Holyrood and Edinburgh Castle. It was protected by an iron yett and double doors supported by gun loops placed in the flanking round towers. It was from one of these loops that an enterprising English soldier yanked a protruding gun - one hopes that his rashness was awarded!

The Netherbow stood, though much altered, until 1764 when it was removed as a bottleneck.

Some fragments remain and its footprint is marked by brass strips on the road. Much of the city walls still survive and provides a walk set apart from the normal tourist hotspots.

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An old drawing imposed upon a photograph of the site today


The title 'Rough Wooing' is derived from the words of George 4th Earl of Huntly when challenged by Seymour that he had originally been a supporter of the marriage. 'Yes', he replied, -but I liked not the manner of the wooing".

Article by SCA member Brian McGarrigle.

Added: 23 Jan 2017 Updated: 20 Apr 2018
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